Tokyo Damage Report

Japan book review 2: TERAYAMA SHUJI by stephen ridgely


Part 2 in a series of reviews of books about Japan.

First let me say: I hate the theater and plays. I think the last play I saw was 9 years ago – an atonal 20th-century-opera about Aileen Wournos, America’s most famous lesbian serial killer.

And I even found THAT boring.

But it seems that a lot ofJapanese bands and artists I like are influenced by theatre director (and movie director, poet, essayist, and all-around naked dude) Terayama Shuji. They say he was like the only weird dude in ‘60s Japan (besides Mishima Yukio), and pretty much ALL avant-garde music and anti-establishment art of today can be traced back to him. So I figured, “OK, fuck it, let’s find out about Terayama.”

So I picked up the book JAPANESE COUNTERCULTURE by Steven Ridgely. My original intent in reviewing the book was to copy the best parts for you guys, so you could learn about Terayama too. But the book is a huge mess – full of indecipherable “artsy fartsy” literary criticism. Since there ARE no ‘best parts’, you all are going to instead get a huge rant about why “artsy fartsy” literary criticism is so awful.

Despite being billed as “a long overdue study of Terayama’s complex oeuvre”, it only covers a little bit of it.

There’s no mention of musical collaborator JA Seazer, or Terayama’s influence on other “underground” people and culture – which is the whole reason I bought it. It’s basically just about what was going on in dude’s head. But it’s not even that: The book isn’t about Terayama so much as it’s using Terayama as a pawn to score points in some arcane academic pissing match between “visual culture” theorists and “literary culture” critics. 

Not only is there no mention of Terayama being super gay (basically the first thing any Japanese will tell you about him), the book doesn’t discuss counterculture despite it BEING THE FUCKING TITLE. (in the afterword, Ridgely says he deliberately avoided discussing Japanese counterculture because he wanted to “avoid the snare of conceiving a global and explicitly antinationalist movement through the category of the nation.”)

So, if it doesn’t discuss counterculture, Terayama’s influence on society, his gay-rights schtick, or even most of his artworks, what IS the damn book like?


“His characters are not centered on a diachronic timeline; they gain no self-awareness from knowing their position within a historiclal lineage. It is the crosscut in time – the experience of synchronicity –that grounds them and provides a base for the ir experience of being. The broader project may be to fictionalize and shrink both the future and the past so that the present becomes bigger and more real, an inhabitable space.”

In this short sample you can see the three main irritating themes of the whole book;

1)    The wacky words that don’t mean anything,
2)     the deliberate confusing of the author’s pet theory with what Terayama meant to say : (‘the broader project may be. . .’ is that YOUR project or Terayama’s? ),
3)     the pretention that the author’s ultimate motive is about helping the common man (‘making the present an inhabitable space’). Who doesn’t want an inhabitable space? Yay! Terayama and Ridgely are on your side! Fight the power! You’re welcome!

OK, to be fair: I really shouldn't single out Ridgely, since pretty much ALL 'artsy fartsy'  academic books share these problems. But he'll make a good example.


The wacky ‘difficult’ academic style of writing was originally developed for hard sciences, where you actually need SPECIFIC words to express specific math concepts – you can’t say ‘fourish’ or ‘squaredish’. Or, you know if you discover a quark or particle you have to make up a new word for it. So there was no good reason to go ‘difficult’ in the humanities in the first place.

Unlike math or science, the liberal-arts-critic’s jargon does not stop them from being illogical or preposterous, in fact it can HELP them to do so, since it obscures their statements and wraps them in a thick cloud of dense fog. After trying to decipher a sentence, I am so mentally exhausted I don’t have energy to actually analyze the deciphered sentence to see if I agree with it or not.

As Philip Howard says in his book Death of Common Sense, as long as one adheres to the proper FORM and PROCEDURES, one’s ass is covered and who cares if one actually accomplishes the original task one was assigned. Of course, Howards  was talking about beuracrats and OSHA regulators, not revolutionary art critics, but if the shoe fits, wear it, bitch.

Also, besides obfuscating the lack of real substance, and functioning as the Emperor’s New Clothes, the academic jargon has one more function: making the authors feel as avant-garde and creative and ‘way out there’ as the famous people whose work they’re critiquing. Nothing academic or intellectual about this : you can find the same phenomenon on any barely-literate music review website: “HAHA !! I’m even weirder and harder to figure out than (name of famous artist)!! I must be more talented than them! THE STUDENT HAS BECOME THE MASSSSSTER!!!!!”

All Baron Mordo style.

I wonder. . . .if you asked academics straight-up, “For God’s sake, why?” would they acknowledge that, “Well yeah the nutty jargon is a drawback, but hey, I need to do that to keep the job.” Or would they seriously insist, “No,  I wouldn’t change a word if I could, because writing using regular-people words would seriously destroy all the nuances of my argument.”


The book is full of interpretations of Terayama’s work. But with the cleverness of a lawyer or politician, Ridgely words his statements to dodge the issue of “This is what Terayama meant” vs. “This reminds me of a pet theory of mine which has nothing to do with Terayama.”

In other words, in the book, nothing is ever ‘my idea’ or ‘Terayama’s idea’.

Instead, he’s like:

‘the central problem of his work is a renegotiation of. . . blahblah ‘
Or, ‘a more ambitious reading is xxxx’
Or, ‘What seems to drive this process is yyy’
Or, ‘Terayama seems interested in unwinding the themes of zzz’
or, ‘The phrasing suggests another possibility: yadayadayada’
or, ‘this project seems to point to. . . .xxx’
Or, “Goffman and Reich’s ideas can open up Terayama’s play in two ways.”
Or my personal favorite:

‘We are left to ask whether encapsulating desire within a diachronic framework functions to justify maintenance of the status quo – that what we have been taught to want is stasis, and we naturalize that desire by cutting off the possibility of geographical and synchronic motion.’

To me, these kinds of statements are classic weasel words

Of course Ridgely might hit back with, “I have to use these very specific terms like ‘A more ambitious reading’ and so on . . . because of my commitment to truth: the truth is that meaning is produced by the author in collaboration with the reader in a way which is so subtle and complicated that you all couldn’t possibly understand it. and if I wrote my book in regular-guy words, all the nuance of how meaning is produced would be lost. It has to be written in fancy words just like a math or science book. Liberal arts is TOO a science!!!!”

However, simple common sense fucks up this counter-argument: This technique of using the passive voice, of avoiding responsibility and ducking the question – that’s what politicians and lawyers do. That’s what BP public relations flacks do after they destroy the Gulf. And it’s clear to everyone they aren’t doing that because of a “concern with truth” or because they are “super-avant-garde” and are “trying to illuminate how meaning is produced”, they are talking that way to obfuscate the truth.


Ridgely’s talent at bullshitting is wasted on a guy like Terayama. I’d like to see Ridgely really put his BS skills to the test – perhaps with a crayon sketch of a 5 year old.

A ‘conservative, limited-by-the-staus-quo reading’ of this: it’s a crappy picture of a dog.
A ‘more ambitious reading’ is: Timmy’s difficult-to-tell-what-it-is scribbley crayon blots ‘leaves us to wonder if Timmy is undermining genre and communication’
A ‘reading which draws this thread out even farther, if I may’ : by drawing attention to how dogs are objects (in this case, a piece of doggy-art) Timmy’s project seems to point to a thorough interrogation of capitalist culture.
A ‘perhaps radical reading’ of this: it means wango dango purple banana monkey patch googley going going dudddddddddd.


More examples of this ‘I’m writing this book to help the common man!’ idiocy, in case you think I’m exaggerating:

“Parody of the structural guarantee against total institutions.”
“a project of deinstitutionalizing lived reality.”
‘deconstructing the relationship of erotics of war’
‘exposing the mechanisms of control’
 ‘an indictment of the top-down social institution of gender formulation that we are accustomed to as the status quo.’
 ‘metaphorical project of deinstitutionalizing’
 ‘a renegotiation of contracts between actors and audience’,

Why do all these academics persist in this pathetic fantasy that their angels-dancing-on-the-end-of-a-pin philosophizing is helping to ‘Stick it to the Man?’

I’m probably the millionth person to notice that all their ‘revolutionary’ writing uses this obtuse jargon which “the people” who they want to “free” could never decipher. 

There is this rule that “You have to write in this impenetrable blathering style” which a) totally alienates the very people the academic wants to liberate from The Man, and b) forcing people to write in this way is just as inefficient, old-fashioned, useless and inflexible as anything The Man could come up with. Why don’t you guys free YOURSELVES from the rigid rules of the academic system before you go criticizing The Man? Sheesh.

Honestly, how can anyone even get past that glaring contradiction? Do these people not even understand that this dooms everything that comes out of their mouths, no matter how true it may be?


And of course, even after I go to the trouble of deciphering it, usually I still don’t get it, simply because the premise – stripped of the protective fog of jargon– is so ridiculous it just makes no sense to begin with.

For example, this classic:

Terayama’s thirty-minute tv drama version of DENEN NI SHISU aired on Nihon Television. It opens with lines that hint at the broader theme at play across all of these DENEN NI SHISU projects: “The red flower blooms, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, let me be twenty once more.” The lullaby here is clearly designed for the caretaker more than the child, but what is striking here is this desire not for escape but for a return to a better past, perhaps a time of greater vitality, but likely a time of freedom. Terayama brings us to these moments again and again as if to ask why a desire essentially for freedom of movement – a geographical impulse – gets processed through this historical metaphor. A shift from diachronic to synchronic orientation might explode this sort of longing, so we are left to ask whether encapsulating desire within a diachronic framweork functions to justify maintenance of the status quo – that what we have been taught to want is stasis, and we naturalize that desire by cutting off the possibility of geographical and synchronic motion.

‘As if to ask?’ ‘We are left to ask’?!? WTF weasel words?!? But still there’s this relentless, preposterous pretension he’s trying to help you out. . .  (The Man wants you to stay in stasis! Who wants to be held back by The Man?!? Who could object to an academic who is fighting to give you freedom of motion??)

 You’re supposed to buy that he’s fighting for your rights and ignore
a)    how is a book that only 5 people ever will read going to help The Man re-evaluate His position re: stasis?
b)    This whole absurd house of cards is erected on the one-sentence poem: “The red flower blooms, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, let me be twenty once more.” So we’re going from a fucking one-sentence flower poem to a general indictment of society, by means of this weaselly little ‘we are left to ask’ phrase. Who besides YOU has EVER asked that after hearing that poem, Ridgely? Are you saying Terayama MEANT specifically that The Man was trying to keep us in stasis, for whatever reason? That was the reason he wrote the poem? Yes or no, dude!! We are left to ask. Sheeeeeeeeeeeeit.
c)    The assertion of conspiracy. Really? The Man has nothing better to do than sit in smoke-filled rooms and say, “Yeah sure we are reducing job wages, fucking up the environment, making Wall Street rich, and installing video cameras on every corner, but what have we done about making sure the oppressed masses are too duped to have a ‘synchronic orientation’? Because really that’s our #1 priority. “

And – even better – if you re-read that paragraph like 5 times (maybe 4 if you’re smarter than I), eventually it will dawn on you that   THE WHOLE THING IS BASED ON A FALSE PREMISE. A straw man, if you will.

Check it out: First Ridgely says the poem is about a return to the past. Fair enough. “Let me be twenty once more.”

Then Ridgley just flips out and decides that, no, people who want to go to the past actually REALLY want to move to a different part of the country. Huh? Where did that come from? And then –the coup de grace – he says, “Well since the average Joe really wants to move to a different place for more freedom, why does Joe instead dream of going back to the past? BECAUSE HE HAS BEEN DELIBERATELY DUPED BY THE MAN!!!! AND TERAYAMA IS A REVOLUTIONARY GENIUS FOR EXPOSING THIS NEFAROUS SCHEME OF THE MAN! AND I AM AN EVEN BIGGER GENIUS FOR EXPLAINING WHAT TERAYAMA MEANT TO SAY, THUS CONTRIBUTING TO THE LIBERATION OF MANKIND!”

But – wouldn’t it be simpler to just say that PEOPLE WHO EXPRESS NOSTALGIA ARE, IN FACT, EXPRESSING NOSTALGIA?

That’s like saying, “People who like Sponge Bob ACTUALLY are TRYING to say they like Mickey Mouse. And the fact that they get their own thoughts so wrong is proof that they are deeply insane.”

I mean, shit.

But that’s what all the wacky big words are for: they’re like a cloud of fog that obscures the central sleight-of-hand.


Maybe I’m wrong here. Maybe I’m just not “academic” or “intellectual” enough to get what Ridgely is talking about. Let’s tackle this Emperor’s New Clothes argument head-on, shall we? Ok, maybe I’m not that smart, but all I have to do is compare the academic rigor of literary criticism to that of hard science, because scientists ARE that smart.
When I say science, I mean engineering, biology, economics or even history. Say a politician did something with interest rates. An economist or historian who wants to have an opinion re: that politician’s policy would have to a) provide some documentation proving the politician actually raised or lowered rates, then b) prove that this policy (rather than other factors) actually had some effect on the economy, and then c) evaluate the results: was it good for the economy or bad? Did the politician fuck up or do well?

Compare this to the Literature Major:

“By this account, it would seem that the entire project seeks to undermine not only genre and commucation but also the vary nature of the most basic units of those concepts: images and words.”

 Ridgely  just arbitrarily decided that Terayama is on purpose ‘undermining not only genre and communication’ (he doesn’t attempt to consider other possibilities, such as “T. is a poor writer”), and then just takes it for granted that ‘undermining genre and communication’ is a worthwhile goal (stick it to The Man! I’m on the side of Liberating!). And he doesn’t even bother to address the issue of, is Terayama is a better, more influential playwright , because of this?

It’s not just the academic laziness of liberal arts writers, it’s the pat, arrogant assumptions that irk me. The cynical use of big words. The big words draw attention AWAY from the fact the author hasn’t proven anything, he just made some snap value judgments and then buried them in a mountain of jargon.


In order to read Ridgely’s book, not only do you have to be able to translate from academic into English, but you also have to learn how to translate from blarney to English – a whole separate skill, but probably a skill you have if you’ve listened to politicians or watch commercials on TV.

When it comes to Terayama. . .

Nothing is ever confusing or poorly planned, it’s always ‘challenging expectations of’ or better yet ‘exposing the contradictions of’ social norms.

 A film isn’t boring or terrible, it’s ‘An attack on audience comfort’ that ‘begins with the opening sequence.’

Scenes that have no cause and effect or cut off in mid-scene are ‘undermining not only genre and communication, but the basic building blocks of these: words and images.’ 

Here’s some more blarney:

1)    Terayama’s take on Marcuse is not the normal one, he takes Marcuse in an even more radical direction = TERAYAMA HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MARCUSE.
2)     Terayama explores themes of boxing because it is a jazz language of improvisation and he considers it ‘the language of violence’ = TERAYAMA LIKES BOXERS BECAUSE THEY ARE HALF NAKED MUSCLEY MEN
3)    Terayama’s a genius at taking a radio play and turning it into a theatrical production and turning that into a movie, because it undermines your preconceived notions of media and meaning = TERAYAMA JUST PLAIN DOESN’T HAVE A LOT OF IDEAS.
4)    Terayama’s radio drama where people are talking who aren’t actually in the room at that point is a genius way of exposing our pre-conceptions about time and challenging our assumptions that radio reflects reality, thus critiquing the capitalist ‘news media’ which purports to tell us the truth = TERAYAMA WAS DRUNK AS SHIT WHEN HE WROTE THE RADIO DRAMA.


I don't care if academics want to write badly about their pet cats or their toothbrush or whatever : to each their stupid own, I say.
But what pisses me off is that you can find a dozen books about “What Sony Did Right As A Corporation” or “Doing Corporate Business The Samurai Way” or “Inside The Otaku World!” or “A History Of Crap Anime”. . . .and these books are written in plain English. But if you want a book about an actual interesting topic (‘30s fascism, the way that Japanese people’s self-concept of what it means to be Japanese is a by-product of feudalism and outright lies, banned books, the iron triangle of beuracrats, business, and right-wing politicians, how even ‘rebellious’ Japanese are still influenced by history and culture and can’t break free. . . etc.) anyway, if you want an actual GOOD book, you have to put up with their jargon and gibberish.
The lack of choice! THAT’S what I can’t forgive. Why do you have to write badly about stuff I CARE about?
It’s like when you get this metal album that is full of rad riffs, good arrangements and really good screams, but the asshole sound engineer made the hi-hat twice as loud as ALL THE OTHER INSTRUMENTS PUT TOGETHER. You know how that kind of almost-great-but-ruined album (and in metal there are a shitload of them, believe me) is way more irritating than a REGULAR shitty album? That is books on Japan in a nutshell.

As this chart should demonstrate (blogging is TOO a science!!)


6 Comments so far

  1. Miguel Sancho June 3rd, 2011 4:18 pm

    Even though your rant is great and I fully agree with your points and reasonings, I think it is a waste of energy. You only needed to point out that the guy uses the word 'diachronic' in three or four random paragraphs.
    Or just do a classic 'Screw Flanders' with it…

  2. admin June 3rd, 2011 5:06 pm

    @miguel: you’re right, it was a huge waste of time! but i guess I had fun finding out exactly how the bullshit functions.

  3. Sasha June 9th, 2011 9:55 am

    Hi! How can I get in touch with you? I'm working on some research for a piece for on Tokyo and would love to get some insights from you. Please shoot me an email so we can talk.

  4. super gay awesome dude August 29th, 2011 7:11 am

    sorry to hear that this book doesn't include such startling insights as  "naked dude" Terayama was "like the only weird dude in ‘60s Japan" and was "super gay" (he wasn't, btw). I just ordered it on the strength of reading your illiterate drivel. Maybe you should write your own book, if you know enough words to fill one up. Question is – If you hate art and the theatre so much why are you reading about Terayama anyway?

  5. cm September 9th, 2011 1:31 pm

    "But if you want a book about an actual interesting topic … you have to put up with their jargon and gibberish." 
    I have been reading your website for hours, since you write passionately about topics which deeply fascinate me.  I also have great sympathy for your disdain of academic jargon.  This was a big reason I personally opted not to go into academia despite all my professors recommending that I do so.
    At the risk of using some jargon myself…
    I think the tendency to conceal one's writing in a 'cloud of fog' results primarily from the difficulty of producing philosophically sound writing.  To the extent that one rejects materialism (that an indisputably factual, real world materially exists independent of our various subjective perception) one necessarily accepts the weakening of strict ontology.  Unfortunately as far as sociology and human history are concerned, these are not topics that have any materially real interpretation outside of subjective human experience.  The farther you look back into the past, or deeper through levels of sociological analysis and meta-analysis, the more this applies.

    The jargon comes about as a necessary consequence of unfortunate students and writers forced to say something, and something ostensibly logically coherent, about topics where nothing can be conclusively said or even known.  That our (speaking as a university graduate in the USA) educational system tolerates and even encourages such flim flam is one of its great weaknesses.  Yet the smooth operation of our society frequently seems to hinge on the use of weasel language.  The problem is by no means unique to academia.
    I think Penny Arcade said it best:
    T: "Syfy is Scifi Channel's new brand identity.  Brand evolution reflective of a broader range of imagination based entertainment.  Creates ownable and extendable brand name for the future.  Imagine greater to become new tagline."
    No human being should ever see messaging like this.
    G:  That's for the general public?
    T:  You're god damn right.  No human being should ever be exposed to language like this.  I actually think that this kind of language is dangerous.  I think this is an evil act.  This is madness.
    G:  […] But all those words mean something.
    T:  Independently!

  6. Stephen August 27th, 2015 7:21 am

    Loved this article. My other issue with academic film books is that they sometimes cost over US$100. Even the goddamn Kindle version. Yes, I’m interested in the subject, but I’m not going to gamble that much on what is likely drivel. And there are so many lazy-assed university presses now that don’t properly edit the film books that they’re publishing. That’s certainly the case in the UK. These are universities – I’m specifically thinking of London’s SOAS – that didn’t have a single book about film a decade or two ago because the librarian didn’t consider film an art form. Worst is when an academic is credited as an editor on the spine on collections of academic essays when s/he clearly hasn’t done any work other than write a lazy introduction. You’re just fast tracking your tenure on the back of unpaid writers. A lot of these film academics don’t watch films anymore. I see some of these “famous” academics at festivals and they’re too lazy to watch the only public screenings of films. And it shows in their work and conversation

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